NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County commissioners got a sense of what the county’s road department would be faced with if they change course and decide against raising the gas tax a nickel per gallon.
It would take up to 50 days to repair a pothole on a residential street. The county would stop mowing and tree trimming along county roadways. Streetlights would go dark.
County Administrator Michele Baker warned that this is not a worst-case scenario — it’s a reality.
“Our infrastructure is aging and it’s falling apart,” she said. “Failure to maintain this infrastructure is going to cost us more in the long run.”
Pasco already charges 7 cents per gallon gas tax, which generates about $12.3 million a year. But it isn’t enough to cover the cost of basic maintenance, County Engineer Michael Garrett said. Since 2008, his staff has been cut in half. “We’re spending less on maintenance per lane mile than we did in 2004,” he said.
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said the situation has gotten so dire some neighborhoods in her district have begun paying outside contractors to fix their potholes. Allowing the county’s roadways to deteriorate will only make it harder to attract new businesses and create more jobs, she said.
“If we can get Mike back to where he needs to be, I think we can stop some of the slide of property values,” she said.
But a 5-cent gas tax increase is still a tough pill to swallow for an all-Republican board that is already set to raise property taxes by 8 percent this year. Pasco’s Republican Executive Committee voted last week to launch a “kill the gas tax” campaign.
Commission Chairman Ted Schrader likened the movement to the party leaders’ opposition more than a decade ago to the original Penny for Pasco sales tax, which has paid for new roads, police vehicles, fire stations and school construction. “Just ask yourself today what in the world would we have done without Penny for Pasco?” he said.
Baker gave commissioners an option, if they wanted to avoid raising the gas tax. They could spend all of the money they currently collect for gas tax on road maintenance, but that wouldn’t solve their problems, she said.
It would force the county to delay vital road projects, such as the Zephyrhills Bypass extension, Moon Lake Road and Collier Parkway phase 3. Even worse, commissioners would have to recalculate their mobility fees so that they would no longer offer incentives for offices and hotels in the urban corridor.
“This is the main reason staff is not recommending Option 2,” Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein said. “We do not want to see mobility fees go up.”
Commissioners Starkey, Schrader and Pat Mulieri have all voiced support for raising the gas tax, but Goldstein said doing so would take four votes — regardless of whether the increase is one penny or the full 5 cents.
Commissioner Jack Mariano said he still isn’t satisfied that the department is making the most of the personnel it has. “I still have the same concerns I had before,” he said.
But Commissioner Henry Wilson said he would be willing to consider raising the tax if he knew it wouldn’t be permanent. “Could we put a sunset on it?” he asked.
Schrader suggested allowing the tax to expire after 10 years — just like the next round of Penny for Pasco. “That gives us a chance to prove that we’re good stewards and that we did what we said we would do,” he said.
Commissioners are set to vote on the gas tax increase Sept. 10 — the same date as the first public hearing on the 2014 budget — in Dade City. The second budget hearing is Sept. 24 in New Port Richey.